In case you missed it, Part I.
Continuing my series of tips on what any performer should know in order to have a successful show, here is Part II of
Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance
So far we have covered #1 Know your stuff, and #2 Know your audience. The list continues today with
#3 Know your venue.
Knowing your venue amounts to situational awareness viewed through experience. Without experience a performer will not know what sort of things can impact a performance; without basic situational awareness, he won’t notice anything. This is another multifaceted aspect to performing, so we’ll break it into pieces.
Sound: Obviously a very important consideration for a musician, but important for any performance with an auditory component. What are the acoustics like? Outdoor venues and large arenas will let the sound spread out over a wide area, progressively weakening. A small, cramped room, however, may mean your band’s drummer can’t play at full volume without completely overwhelming the other instruments. Is the sound unevenly distributed, with or without speakers? My old church’s sanctuary was one big, long room with a high vaulted ceiling. Without amplification, the first three rows could hear clearly, but everyone farther back heard practically nothing — except for that one spot in the balcony, where you could hear everything.
Consider secondary sound issues as well. Are there announcements over the building’s intercom every five minutes? If your venue provides sound amplification, is it any good? Do you get one microphone per instrument, one per band, or none at all? Will the sound carry such that the police suddenly arrive because the neighbors heard your loud music and complained?
Lighting: Do you need secondary lighting, or is natural light enough? Are there dark spots and bright spots on your stage, giving the impression of the light of God shining on your unsuspecting bassist? Will the spotlights blind you like the proverbial deer in the headlights, or will your audience need to find you by braille? Too little light and you might not be able to read your set list or music; too much and you could overheat. Do not underestimate the total heat from over-excited performers, a packed audience, and stage lights.
Space: If you are performing for a rotating audience, is there room for interested people to stop and watch? Is there floor space or chairs where they can sit? Consider your stage’s space as well. Too little space for your routine and you could run into walls or the audience. Too much space can be just as much an issue, leaving the performer looking small and lonely in the middle of a cold, empty stage. It always looks so sad when a performer fails to fill the space, and the “pitiful performer” rarely leaves a positive impression on the audience.
Weather: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night may stop the United States Postal Service, but it certainly can slow a performer. Obvious weather concerns might be that you do not want to get wet, or your instrument may be too fragile for freezing temperatures. Weather is bigger than that; think more broadly. Weather issues are not only the domain of the outdoor performance. If people are coming in with snow-covered boots, you could have an ice rink forming by the door. A sudden rainstorm might force a huge temporary audience inside for your indoor performance — an audience that will disperse with the clouds if they do not find your entertainment compelling enough to stay. Snowstorms and thunderstorms can both down power lines in an instant — you may suddenly find yourself improvising an acoustic show (and your equipment might be dead if you didn’t use surge protectors!) And Heaven help you if it starts hailing on your building’s tin roof, because no one will be able to hear you no matter what you’re doing.
Comfort: This is the all those miscellaneous inconveniences that can turn a routine performance into a waking nightmare. Are there bathrooms? Are you allowed to use them, or is that privilege reserved for paying customers? Do you have water available nearby, or are you limited to the soda machine (if you’re lucky)? If your venue is a non-smoking establishment, is there somewhere nearby you can smoke your pre-show cigarette? Do you get a green room for prep time, or will you have to hit the ground running?
You the performer are not the only one who has to deal with your venue and the various challenges it may pose; your audience will probably be facing similar issues. Overlapping with #1 (Know your stuff), are you somewhere busy where the audience rotates? Will interested passers-by have somewhere to stop and listen in relative comfort? Are you irritating background noise, or the main focus? Are you visible enough? If an audience member cannot see you or hear you, she isn’t likely to stay interested in what you’re doing, regardless of how impressive it is. Remember, any strange sound issues or bizarre lighting will usually make the performance less enjoyable — what might be an inconvenience to the performer might be a deal-breaker for an audience member.
This looks like a lot of things to consider, and it is, but it becomes second nature after a couple shows. You can keep a checklist if you are worried, but that is probably unnecessary — you’ll learn what sort of things will impact your situation the most, what bothers you, etc. A couple of bad experiences are the best teacher of what you need to watch out for.
A little anecdote about being aware of your venue:
In high school I was in our school’s honor choir, Kerygma. We would learn four-part songs, our director would put some cheesy choreography with it, and we would perform around the community as sort of positive press for the school. Every year we’d have some massive medley of songs, fully choreographed. This would be our default piece for any performance, since it would be showy and fun and energetic. My Senior year the featured piece was a medley of Rogers and Hammerstein musical numbers. It had snippets of such fun songs as “Oklahoma,” from Oklahoma, “Shall We Dance,” from The King and I, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Carousel, and several others. Somewhere in the middle of the craziness all our guys grabbed mops, the kind with long white cords, and started singing “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” from South Pacific. They started off with mopping motions, then went to romancing the mops as long-haired dancing partners. The culmination of the segment had the guys laying the mops on their shoulders horizontally and spinning around, alternating every other person in sort of a mop-frenzied, pinwheel-meets-whack-a-mole bit. All the while, us ladies are hiding to the sides, making certain to avoid getting smacked in the head with a mop by an overzealous dancer.
We rehearsed in a good-sized room. We had plenty of open space to take normal walking steps across the “stage”, find our dancing partners, and make big motions. There were no problems avoiding the swinging mops when that part of the choreography rolled around. The twirling men were staggered so they would not hit each other, no mop-ladies would clatter together, and the human singing-ladies hiding to the sides had no cause to worry. Well, in this particular case, we arrived at our venue, which was for a luncheon gathering. We were shown our performance area in a corner of the room, surrounded on two sides by windows and the other two by sound equipment and tables. We all looked at it, momentarily stunned at our postage-stamp stage, and mentally shrank our motions to a quarter of the size we were used to. There were sixteen of us, plus sound equipment, to fit — to dance — on a floor that was not more than twenty feet wide and eight feet deep. Very shortly later, with no time to practice beforehand, all of us were on the floor, giving our best rendition of our choreography that we could, given that we were practically marching in place. It was going smoothly when we reached the guys’ song, and the ladies backed up to the sides as usual. The guys started mopping, then kicked the mops to their shoulders… and suddenly all us ladies were trying not to look alarmed as we realized that there was no way that the mops would not hit everything within a five foot radius of each dancer…INCLUDING US. It really is difficult to flatten oneself against a wall discreetly while looking happy and interested, but that sort of acting is the soul of performance. Thankfully, the guys were more on top of their choreography than we were, and, with no prior communication that I saw, left the mops mostly vertical rather than horizontal so they would not take out the speakers, the audience, and each other with their spins.
The moral of the story: Notice what’s around you.
What adventures have you had in relating to your venue?